Sonya Looney Rides the Mongolia Bike Challenge: Part 1 – The Adventure Begins

Race Coverage Travel

The Mongolia Bike Challenge has been touted as one of the top 5 hardest mountain bike stage races in the world. I only knew one person who had done the race, Cory Wallace who now claims 2 consecutive wins. After my experience racing the Yak Attack in Nepal, I was excited to go back to Asia. I was hoping to get a unique cultural experience and learn more about Mongolia. I was interested in the remote areas of Mongolia and ready to test my fitness against some of the top European and Australian racers in the world.

Normally I know exactly how I feel when I’m finishing a tough stage race. My skin perks up with millions of goosebumps, a lump of excitement forms in my throat, and a rush of joy upon crossing the line. Upon finishing the Mongolia Bike Challenge, I wasn’t sure how I felt except tired and relieved.

It’s been about a week since I got home from Ulaanbataar as I sit and write this post. It was a tough week. I tried to get right back into the swing of things at work with the 15 hour jet lag and fight a lingering sickness that showed up after Stage 2 of the race. Now that my zombie-like state has subsided, I have a clear enough head to reflect upon what just happened.

I honestly don’t even know where to start with all the mixed emotions, so how about I keep it simple and start with the beginning.

Before the Race

We loaded up into a few giant buses the day before the race. We were buzzing with excitement with the adventure ahead of us. Personally, I was excited to get out of the city.

Ulaanbataar isn’t terrible, but it was different. There seemed to be an interesting hierarchy of priorities. There were lots of buildings half kept, gardens that used to be beautiful that were now overgrown with weeds, rubble and enormous piles of dirt lining the highway. This was contrasted by more luxury cars in one spot than I’ve ever seen and people who took great pride in their appearance. I was also surprised that there were not a lot of older cultural buildings. We found one beautiful Buddhist temple, but discovered it had only been around for 100 years.

Matt and I could not figure it out. Matt concluded that since the Mongolians are nomadic people, they might not take as much pride in dwelling areas and are more keen to invest in themselves. Makes sense really. I love going to grocery stores in foreign countries. The ones in Ulaanbataar caught me by surprise. I have never seen so many candy aisles! About 1/3 of the grocery stores seemed to be candy. My sugar tooth quivered and prodded me.

Anyway, back to the bus. It was very purple inside!

As we rolled out of the city, we passed the Ger district (the Gers are the buildings we would be spending most of our time in for the next week).

The highway was very bumpy and the landscape was wide and vast. There were very little trees in sight. The rolling tundra was repetitive yet a welcoming sight after being in the city. I knew that this view would be burned into my brain as it would be the backdrop for the next 500 miles I’d race on my bike.

After a couple hours, we were there – the Chinggis Kahn Complex. I was shocked at the size of the giant statue.

After getting off the bus, I was even more shocked when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. The wings were huge. My jaw dropped. There were 4-5 birds on display. The wingspan of the colossal vulture was almost unbelievable to me. I ran to get a closer look with childlike curiosity. It made me sad that the birds were tied up, but I appreciated being able to take a closer look. The birds were something that seemed unique to Mongolia. I sometimes see hawks and eagles flying around, but not like in Mongolia. For 2 dollars, I could hold the vulture on my arm. The idea was terrifying so I had to do it.

My heart was pounding in my chest and neck as I stepped up. The winged creature was so heavy that I needed two arms to hold it up. Its claws were as big as my hands. My legs were jello underneath me!

We had an opening ceremony with local music and singers. We found our first Gers. Matt and I were sharing with Giuliana Massarotto and her husband, Biso. I was surprised to see little beds with a blanket, complete with a hand towel and some soap. That night, we had a giant buffet and got to try on some authentic Mongolian costumes.

The race was set to start the next morning. I knew the field was stacked and I was excited because I knew it would push me to be at my best. I didn’t know where I’d fall in the talented womens’ field with both world and national champions from all over, but I was ready to get started.

Continue reading for Stages 1 & 2 and full photo gallery.

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About the author: Sonya Looney

Sonya Looney is a world class ultra endurance mountain bike racer. She has competed in the hardest international stage races in the world, picking up several wins. She has three USA 24 Hour National Champion jerseys in her closet, as well as a Marathon World Championship USA team kit hiding in there as well. Her love is for big mountain adventures which helps her excel at her favorite race distance - 100 milers. Sonya's positive energy and love for life would never lead you to guess she suffers in her races and always is laughing with a grin on her face. She also prides herself in her taste for microbrews, red wine, and has a quick witted sense of humor.


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